Til death do us part: What's the secret of a lasting marriage?

As the grimmest month of the year, nothing rivals it. January is synonymous with debt, dieting and divorce. The first working Monday has even earned itself the epithet Divorce Day, such is the tsunami of entreaties crashing on to lawyers’ desks.

Amongst the applications being processed this year is what’s being called the most expensive divorce ever, that of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (net worth $137bn) and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie. Their separation was announced before news broke of Jeff’s affair with married TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, but the split underlines just how tough it can be to keep a marriage alive in the longterm.

And yet the research suggests that if you can make it work, you’ll reap the benefits. A study published last week by University College London found that older people who are married are physically fitter, have a stronger grip and walk further and faster than their divorced counterparts. The researchers studied more than 20,000 people over the age of 60 in England and the US. They found married men walk further and faster than divorced men, while divorced women had weaker grips. They concluded that the stress of divorce may take its toll on physical health.

With all of that in mind, just what is the secret to a lasting marriage? Novelist Marion Reynolds, who has been married to husband Patrick for 50 years, says there’s no secret except communication, but warns against “playing the blame game” or seeking recrimination.

“You see people who get into financial difficulties and they’ll say: ‘You didn’t do this’. “Your focus needs to be on finding a way out of a fix, not ascribing fault. Patrick and I talked about marriage relatively early on but we couldn’t afford it immediately. Then, when we were still dating, he went to study at NYU for a year and that was when we knew we had to be together,” she says.

“We wrote to each other a lot during that year and we still have those letters. Patrick has always been very romantic and romance keeps a marriage alive. We had no money for years, especially when the children were young. I would get student tickets to the Abbey and we’d go the theatre and have chicken and chips on the way home. Or we’d go for a walk on Dun Laoghaire pier and have a drink. But we always kept date night and made time for each other.”

Figures suggest we Irish are still romantics when it comes to marriage. The married population grew by 4.9pc between 2011 and 2016, outstripping population growth of 3.8pc.

But getting married is easy – staying married is the hard part. A few years in, when the novelty has passed and the tedium of domesticity has set in, anything seems more desirable than the emotional hard labour of addressing an unhappy relationship.

The ‘crude divorce rate’, divorces per thousand people, in Ireland remains relatively low – as of 2016, it was at 0.6pc versus 1.9pc in the UK. That said, the numbers of separated and divorced people increased by 8.9pc between 2011, and 2016, according to the CSO.

“People are human and there is the initial stage of lust, which can allow people to create a persona of chivalry, generosity, sexuality or romance. As time goes by, domesticity takes its toll and people become their true selves,” says David Kavanagh, family therapist at marriagetherapy.ie.

“At that point, it’s up to the partner to accept them or not. Sometimes that process takes less than three years. Sometimes it takes for the arrival of a child, or the experience of unemployment to bring out the worst in somebody. The success of your marriage depends on how you deal with those challenges.”

According to figures from Accord, the Catholic counselling agency, the point at which most clients seek help is 13 years into marriage. While divorce applications slumped during the crash, the numbers applying returned to boom levels in 2017, with overwork cited most often in court documents.

Though the catalysts for marital strife may vary from adultery, overwork, unemployment or financial difficulties, counsellors agree that the mechanisms for repairing damage lie with the couple. That mechanism is the ability to be vulnerable with your partner.

“Vulnerability is very important and it’s very difficult,” says Anne Colgan, Chair of the Irish Council for Psychotherapy (ICP). “Showing your vulnerability is very brave and, actually, you’re probably at your strongest when you can do that.”

Kavanagh agrees. “Learning to be vulnerable is very difficult, people usually do it with the help of a therapist. Or you could be lucky and have a loving, supportive, emotionally-aware partner. Or you might be struggling to learn what emotional vulnerability even looks like. It is a phrase people aren’t necessarily comfortable with.”

What comes up again and again with therapists is the necessity to be able to address conflict.

“How you tolerate difference is one of the biggest questions we come across in therapy,” says Deirdre Hayes, psychotherapist and board member of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland. “The worst conflicts can be overcome if you learn how to talk nicely and, also, as Irish people, use our sense of humour. That helps in diffusing issues. If you don’t address conflict, then it becomes gridlock. As a therapist, ideally you hope to get to a couple before they’re polarised.”

Certainly, expectations seem to play a role. Marion Reynolds said she didn’t even consider what she thought of marriage before committing. The couple met at Terenure Rugby Club in the early 1960s. She was turning 18. He was 20. Her first novel, A Soldier’s Wife, is based on the life of her grandparents, who were married for 60 years.

“I was doing my Leaving Cert when I met Patrick at a hop. He gave me a lift home on his scooter and we started dating,” she says.

“Patrick had been studying accountancy and after my Leaving, I went into Aer Lingus. My parents could have afforded to send me to university, but there were two brothers after me and I was conscious of their fees.

“After we married, I was very happy and we had our son within the year. It was only then I began to think about what it meant to be a housewife. I was 22 and, at home with the baby, I used to look out the window and see other women pushing prams and I thought: ‘No. This isn’t for me’.

“I told Patrick and he said: ‘Okay, what do you want to do?’ I said: ‘Well, I would have loved to have gone to university.'”

Patrick sold his car and used the funds to pay Marion’s fees to do English and Literature at Trinity. Afterwards, she completed a higher diploma and a master’s. They had their second child while she finished her undergrad. Marion says Patrick supported her for five years, including helping with the child-rearing. “I was lucky that Patrick was always modern. He was at a party once when a man, whose wife was standing beside him, said: ‘What’s it like to be married to an intelligent woman?’

“Some women questioned my choices. I was talking about my exams at Trinity and one said: ‘Well, it’s good to have an interest.’

“We always respected each other’s decisions. I supported him leaving accountancy and going into lecturing. We also moved around a lot. It’s kept things interesting. We lived in the UK for 11 years. When we moved back, we went to West Cork. Now we’re in Wicklow. Our life has been a real journey. I’m looking forward to see what comes next.”

Psychotherapist Deirdre Hayes says there is no formula for a happy marriage.

“Is there a kind of person who is good at marriage? Well, call me an optimist – everyone can be good at marriage. But if there’s been issues, such as an affair, you can fix it, but it can be hard work.”

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